UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme

This research area comprises the funding for Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) for the UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme. Transfer of funding for the domestic fusion programme to EPSRC from the Department of Trade and Industry occurred in 2003/04.

Funding currently encompasses support for the upgrade to Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST), the UK research programme and UK host funding for operating the Joint European Torus (JET, Europe's flagship fusion facility) which the programme operates for the EUROfusion initiative. Research undertaken includes plasma physics, chemistry and physics of deuterium and tritium, particle physics as related to fusion science, modelling of tokamak operations, tokamak engineering and design, materials research and development of remote maintenance techniques.

Overall, EPSRC provides around 30% of the income for the programme and facilities with the other 70% provided by the European Union's Euratom initiative.

The UK magnetic nuclear fusion research programme is a critical part of the greater global research effort into developing a viable fusion energy sector that will provide secure, reliable resilient and almost limitless energy source.

We will maintain investment in this research area as a proportion of the EPSRC portfolio. The main strategic priorities, as laid out by a 20-year vision,1 will be to:

  • Continue to support international fusion science at JET, to reduce risk to the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) fusion project
  • Support research on MAST, to capitalise on experience from operating JET and keep the UK well-positioned to benefit from future international fusion energy developments (e.g. the DEMO demonstration reactor)
  • Research into materials and technology in support of the ITER project
  • To support the MAST Upgrade facility as a UK national programme that will provide a centre of excellence for the UK once JET is decommissioned

Other priorities highlighted by the vision and an independent review2 are to:

  • Continue to encourage collaboration between the UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme and universities working in fusion research, to identify and enable transferable outcomes
  • Continue to work closely with the fusion Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) at the University of York to ensure the supply of future UK fusion research leaders
  • Encourage the programme to work more with complementary research areas (e.g. engineering in hazardous environments and the Nuclear Fission research area) to exploit synergies and reduce duplication of capability
  • Support the Materials Research Facility (MRF) and Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) centre at the UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme, to facilitate the previous bullet point

While the programme does not directly support students, it is responsible for training postdoctoral researchers and hosts students funded by the fusion CDT. The numbers of researchers being trained will be maintained because research capacity for fusion research was judged by the recent independent review to be appropriate to the future needs of the sector.

Industrial demand for researchers with fusion experience is limited, so links to other research areas are very important. The crossover with Nuclear Fission, Robotics and Autonomous Systems and sensor/detector research provides a wider pool of capability and career opportunities for fusion researchers. The programme will also continue to train the people that will be needed to enable operation of the ITER facility when it becomes operational.

Highlights:

In the long term, fusion promises to provide almost limitless energy. Other than renewables, it therefore represents the only truly long-term energy-dense power source. Fusion energy will not be delivered by one country alone; however, most research to deliver a functioning power station is being undertaken through JET, ITER and DEMO.

The UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme is Europe's leading centre of fusion energy research. The Fusion Advisory Board (FAB), an independent body, reviews progress twice yearly and oversees the quality of the science there. The FAB also produces a 20-year vision document on the UK's contribution to fusion, last updated in 2015. A major review is undertaken at the mid-point of each programme grant and a significant review is undertaken when the grant is due for renewal. The reports produced are a key source informing the strategy for this research area.

MAST is the programme's central facility. With its sister facility in the US, it leads the world in the spherical tokamak approach to fusion. MAST is nearing completion of an upgrade (to become MAST-U) that will greatly expand its scientific capability. When it begins operation, it will essentially be a new facility that will explore a possibly more compact approach to fusion energy, develop novel solutions to the crucial challenge of the plasma-material interface and provide important results to ITER and plasma confinement science. As well as MAST, the UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme researches the theory of fusion plasmas and fusion materials science and technologies.

The independent review (see above) identified that the UK's programme of magnetic confinement fusion (MCF) has a high degree of scientific excellence and is central to the wider international effort in MCF. It noted that the JET programme is at the highest level of international importance, as the only tokamak able to run deuterium-tritium experiments; its results are vital for mitigating risks at ITER. The review noted that the university research community is well-integrated with the UK fusion programme, with particular strengths in modelling and materials science/technology and a strong CDT. Addressing individual aspects of the UK fusion activity the review summarised that JET is an essential component of the UK programme; MAST-U is an essential aspect of the UK programme and should next be reviewed in a decade; the materials research is of increasing importance.

The UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme interacts most strongly with the Plasma and Lasers research area, under which all the other EPSRC-supported fusion-related research is coded. There is also some overlap with Materials for Energy, and Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

This are contributes significantly to Outcomes across longer-term timescales and particularly relevant to the following Productive and Resilient Ambitions:

P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies

Fusion energy promises the delivery of clean, almost limitless power, but the research challenges are considerable and require a global research effort (Evidence source 1,3,4).

P2: Ensure affordable solutions for national needs

To be truly cost-competitive, the cost of fusion needs to be reduced and this will be achieved through the R&D learning curve, with EPSRC-supported research ensuring that the basic science and engineering is sound (Evidence source 5).

R1: Achieve energy security and efficiency

Successful delivery of fusion energy will make the UK energy-independent as deuterium can be extracted from sea water and tritium can be synthesised by absorption of neutrons in the lithium used to cool fusion reactor vessels.

R2: Ensure a reliable infrastructure which underpins the UK economy

Fusion energy holds the prospect of a truly reliable, resilient energy infrastructure.

R3: Develop better solutions to acute threats: cyber, defence, financial and health

Fusion energy will address multiple threats: energy shortages, energy supply disruption, resource depletion, environmental pollution (including CO2 emissions) and price volatility.

R5: Build new tools to adapt to and mitigate climate change

Fusion energy has the potential to be a very low-carbon energy source that is reliable and abundant.

  1. Research Councils UK (RCUK), An Updated 20-year Vision for the UK Contribution to Fusion as an Energy Source (PDF), (2015).
  2. EPSRC, EPSRC Independent Review of Fission and Fusion (PDF), (2016).
  3. Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, A Ten-Year Perspective (2015-2025) (PDF), (2015).
  4. Institute of Physics Plasma Physics Group, UK Plasma Visions: The State of the Matter (PDF), (2012).
  5. HM Government, Technology and Innovation Futures: Growth Opportunities for the 2020s, (2012).

Other sources:

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EPSRC Support by Research Area in UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme (GoW)
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Contact Details

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Name: Dr Neil Bateman
Section / Team: RCUK Energy programme
Organisation: EPSRC
Telephone: 01793 444496